Job cuts, pay freezes and the Government's pensions review add up to an "explosive mixture" that could disfigure industrial relations in Britain over the next few years, the country's most senior trade union leader warns today.
In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary, Brendan Barber, condemns David Cameron's "propaganda" that his austerity programme is the only way to cut the national debt and haul Britain out of recession. And, on the eve of the TUC congress in Manchester this week, he warns that he will not allow public sector workers to be portrayed as "cosseted" or "a drain on the rest of the community".
Mr Barber's rallying cry came as the UK faced the threat of industrial action at the Post Office, Fire Brigade, BBC, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and London Underground, as well as Coca-Cola and King's College Hospital.
The TUC's General Council claimed this weekend that what it called the Government's "reckless" policy of rapid deficit reduction would hit the most vulnerable and could "irreparably damage" the UK. The grim declarations amounted to the most significant warnings of widespread industrial unrest against Government proposals so far.
Opposition to the Coalition's austerity programme mounted yesterday, with communications workers threatening action after the Government decided to press ahead with controversial Royal Mail privatisation plans.
"I don't go around talking about great waves of strikes and so on," Mr Barber said, although he predicted "some very difficult disputes in some areas".
"We have a duty to reflect the real worries and fears, and real anger that will grow as people see the impact of government policy. The Government has invested a lot of effort in trying to persuade people there is no option. That's not the case. The risks of going down this track are enormous and will make the situation worse.
"There is an alternative. Don't be fooled by the barrage of propaganda by the Government, that all of this is simply unavoidable and there are no choices. There are real choices. These are not decisions made out of necessity. They are made out of political principle and choice."
Union leaders are preparing for battle against Chancellor George Osborne next month, when he reveals the results of his Comprehensive Spending Review, which will detail how much each Whitehall department will be required to cut from their budgets. The review is the central element in the coalition's attempts to cut the deficit, which rose to £155bn in the last financial year.
The looming review of public sector pensions, led by the former Labour cabinet minister Lord Hutton of Furness, is also raising concerns among union leaders. The Prime Minister has already said he expects the review will lead to changes in the rights of existing public sector workers, not only future employees.
Mr Barber said he wanted to build a wide coalition of interests to focus discontent at the Government's proposals – and to prevent public sector workers being made scapegoats for the country's economic problems.
He added: "If we are not careful, we will see ourselves in a double-dip recession. We have the opportunity to try to build much stronger alliances with others within the community – users of services who are going to be impacted by the cuts.
"Although the Government has played the game of trying to almost make public services – and the people who work for them – a drain on the rest of the community, as if they are living cosseted lives at the expense of taxpayers, the reality is that the health of the public and private sector economies depends on each other."
The postal workers became the latest group to signal their discontent with government policy, after the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, said a report calling for private investment in Royal Mail presented a "very clear picture" of the way forward.
The Communication Workers Union (CWU) described privatisation as "old politics" and voiced fears that the Government was plotting to "seize" pension assets it said were worth £26bn. The union, which held a series of strikes last year in a row over modernisation, has not ruled out fresh industrial action.
Billy Hayes, CWU general secretary, said: "Privatisation is ... the failed politics of history which brought disruption to Britain's utilities and railways, and astronomical prices for consumers. Privatisation would be devastating for Royal Mail and the whole country's postal services. The universal service has been a key part of the UK post for 170 years but, because it isn't the profitable element of mail, privatisation will put it at risk.
"This could damage the service for all customers, including millions of small businesses, and potentially harm the UK economy. Privatisation will also mean the separation of Royal Mail and the post office network, putting at risk the very existence of many more post offices that play such a key role in Britain's communities."
Disputes on the horizon: Is this shaping up to be the new 'Winter of Discontent'?
British Airways: Union leaders warn that BA faces more industrial action unless they negotiate a settlement to the long-running dispute. BA cabin crew have already staged 22 days of strike action this year.
Royal Mail: Communication Workers Union opposes the Government's decision to press ahead with plans to part-privatise the Royal Mail.
BBC: Staff have voted for strike action in a dispute over pensions. Bectu and the National Union of Journalists said more than 90 per cent of members had voted to walk out.
London Underground: Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association plan three more 24-hour strikes in their dispute over plans to scrap 800 jobs in ticket offices. A walk-out last Tuesday severely disrupted the network.
Virgin Atlantic: Pilots represented by the British Airline Pilot's Association met last week to discuss the issue of a minimum number of rostered days off. The airline is attempting to trim the current 120-day per annum minimum in a bid to reduce costs.
London Firefighters: Thousands of London firefighters are to start voting on whether to take industrial action in a row over plans to scrap current working hours and force fire crews to sign new contracts.
Southern Railway: Workers are to be balloted for industrial action over a claimed upsurge in assaults on staff.Reuse content